I’ve studied the meaning of “nature” for forty odd years. I took a class on it in 1972, when there were few such courses. I’ve been as confused over what it could possibly mean as anyone, caught between all the assumptions that have stuck to the term. Then in the first week of this year, reading Julian Bell’s What Is Painting?, I came across this simple definition.
“Nature… (is) that which was born.”
Once it was pointed out, the common root with natal, it was obvious. The relief at finding this clear simple meaning washed away any embarrassment over how long it took me to get here.
As, most recently, Paul Kingsnorth has delineated the twists and turns that took us from nature and natural to environment and ecological, stripping the term nature of all its baggage and starting fresh relieves the technical aura of the latter terms and restores a clear meaning to the former.
That which was born.
We might want to limit this to placental mammals or creatures who reproduce via an egg. I would suggest that “That which was born” includes everything that is created. Take a look at these stones and tell me they were not born.
Born/borne. One is a coming to life, the other is carrying something, whether a burden or a gift. These are interchangeable.
Human creations can be born, other made things are merely replicated. What can be borne differs from what can only destroy.
Again returning to Kingsnorth’s latest essay, the term nature doesn’t necessarily mean wild. We have, through a plate tectonics of sorts, taken a small crack, a distinction between that which has fallen prey to our will and the rest of what is, and have now created a broad gulf between the two. Wild may or may not still exist. Even the search for it destroys it with the perverse certainty behind Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle! We could have had wildness or we can witness it, but we can no longer, it seems, have both.
There may be a different way to look at this gulf between what we fear and admire and call wild, and what we are accustomed to and find refuge in – even as we recognize that it is killing us all – and call…, not wild?
It’s funny, we tend to see the “wild” as a place where we would be locked in struggle and scrabbling for an upper hand. We take comfort from the “security” of our niches within the realm of the “cultivated” – how’s that for a term to contrast with “wild?” Surrounded as we are in this political season by the oh so unsubtle projections and mirroring reversals that are the soundtrack to the battle of the Egoists versus the Narcissists playing itself out in our public arena, what if we use this same lens to look at this set of contrasting assumptions? John Michael Greer disentangles the way this works in relation to automobiles and freedom in his most recent post.
If a similar thing is happening with our overall responses to wildness and cultivation, or our own domestication as a crop, a herd, to be used by those who have managed to wield the most power; the reverse of what is claimed is most likely to be true. Whatever security we may be able to find is there in what we call “the wild,” and we are trapped and confined by what we consider our “cultivated home.” One free of compulsion and domination, the other rife with them.
How can that be?
As with everything else, it comes down to perception and attitude. Perception is how we take in our sense of the world. Attitude is how we orient ourselves to the world based on our interpretations of what we perceive. Our attitude affects our perception. This in turn shapes our attitudes. When we hold onto attitudes that increasingly diverge from our ongoing perception we are forced to dominate and coerce our selves to maintain this state.
We are conditioned to accept domination as an immutable fact of existence. Our very being rejects this. In response, we project an imagined necessity. We refuse to see our craving for domination as a result of our conditioning, the result of a series of accidents of history in no way immutable; and we project it onto what we call “wild nature” as a foundational condition beyond our abilities to affect. In this way it is not our habits of acting and reacting from within a dynamic of domination that are at fault, it is simply “the way things are,” or “human nature.”
Rage is the Ego’s last resort to ensure that “It’s all about ME!” Think about it. Our anger, whatever its purported target is always self-referential. For all our vaunted “Fight or flight!” bursts of adrenaline and lashing out from out of a reddened haze, how often in life is this ever actually of any use? There’s the Zebra running for its life from a lion…. How often, outside of a “Nature” documentary, does this actually happen to a Zebra? In life, on a given day, the chances amount to “winning” a lottery, even if it may not be one we would want to win. Why do filmmakers have to sit patiently for hours, days, even weeks or months to capture these dramatic images of the peek of struggle? True moments of intense fight or flight are rare. Each of us must come to some form of it, but most often it is, as with those hapless Zebras, at the final moments of life and for that reason a passing, more or less brief moment of trauma followed by release.
Contrast this with our immersion in toxic stress. Our greatest “killers” result from this very instinct, there to save us from peril. It’s not the instinct’s fault. It is the result of placing this one behavior out of the full array of possible responses and insisting it is the only response we can have. It piles on justifications that have transmuted a life saving gambit into our greatest source of disease.
What is at the heart of our over-use of stress inducing behaviors like fight or flight? They all share one fundamental attitude. They all involve wrenching ourselves out of the flow of presence and into a state of obsessive self-observation leading to attempts at self-control. Self-control is as great a fiction as any other form of the will-to-control. This takes us from a position from which we are best able to meet what happens with the greatest flexibility – including in relation to what we think of as our self – and throws us into a stiff and brittle, over-determined stance in relation to all that is. A stance that guarantees that our reactions will fail to find suitable traction.
One could say that natural behavior is that which grows out of that which was born. Our dysfunctional habits, the result of our conditioning, focusing and amplifying the effects of our social constructs hijacked by those most susceptible to suppressing their born natures to most “successfully” fit our domesticated prison, keep us pinned within a mode destined to keep us from understanding how our every intentional act leads us further and further from anything we would ever choose for ourselves. Welcome to the morass of unintended consequences and escalating interventions that cascade us deeper into collapse.
Nothing is born that has not been the result of an act of sincerity. You might pity or laugh at the birth pangs of some young woman tricked into pregnancy by an insincere Don Juan. This might be how she got there, but this fact does not change the sincerity within the act of gestation itself or the possibility of her total immersion within the experience of labor. From the point of view of the child, there may never be as sincere a moment in her life as those passing from in utero to arriving in mundi – at least until the act of dying. In all cases the intention behind a cause does not fix the sincerity with which we can approach what occurs. The source of our awe and wonder at the world we perceive comes through our awareness of the all pervasive fact of sincerity embodied in every aspect of what is. Our own sincerity, forged in a surrender to our unforced nature, presents itself only if we allow ourselves to recognize it from within. Thus, experiencing our own sincerity opens us to the sincerity which surrounds us. The peace and clarity this affords us in not available if we clutch after it. It may be the ultimate Gift.
I’ve began an inquiry into the condition of sincerity and its effects. Let’s carry forward an initial insight within this interchange surrounding the relation of the skeptic to sincerity.
Sincerity can only be recognized from within. It offers no projected truth. We cannot be certain of our perceptions of anyone else’s sincerity. Perception is too weak a tool. There is too much room for confusion, for projection, for reaction. But, the habits and practices that put us in contact with our own sincerity work directly upon our ability to see through traps of domination. We hear and heed the faint resistance as our organism asks us to let go. We connect with the countless little aspects of experiencing what is, and we read the first tremors of concern bubbling up from within if we close ourselves off from being as we fall under the spell of a desire to control.
Let’s be plain. What is natural, what is born, grows of its own accord. Whatever impulse towards a form held within anything manifests within an interaction with everything else. Intention has little to do with anything beyond a drive to assist us in focusing our attention. Beyond that, the will-to-control, as it acts out an insistence that our intention is more important than what is; can only pile up obstacles to our movement within the flow of all that is.
So long as we insist on carving out distinctions – including those between nature and something else, between wild and something else – we refuse to give up on our will-to-control. We insist that fossilized remains of a passing attitude towards our situation, frozen from out of the flow, ignoring the lessons emanating from what comes to us on the edge that is now as it continues to pour over us; is more important, more actual, than all that.
We proceed, from this assumed stance, as the flow goes on without our attention keeping pace; and in our disequilibrium, we switch over into a cascading condition of ever greater inflexibility, one that blossoms into a virulent incapacity to see our way out of our trap. Here comes our rage. Here comes our stress, our fight or flight, the endless proliferation of contradictions and categories and distinctions that shatter any possibility of our finding the unity of our world and our place within it. This precipitation leaves us within the pathological reversals brought up at the top of this essay. This sense that it is not our toxic reaction that puts us in a state of struggle and scrabbling striving, that we will, we must, find security, be saved, only through increasing our state of bondage within systems of domination.
We’ve taken the passing attitude of a moment in the flow – let’s return to our Zebra wishing to escape the clutches of a lioness and bringing every fiber of her being to this moment of struggle in the fervent desire to save herself – and we turn this into a way of life. We fetishize a desire to escape a moment of extremis and build an entire edifice of control to act through intention to carry it out. We take the concerns of a final moment in an otherwise full life experiencing the world, and we trade this in for the illusion that something imposed through will and inflated intention can save us.
Save us from what?
Save us from anything and everything.
This impulse halts the flow of life maintained through quiet actions of embodied sincerity.
It throws us into the very Hell we seek to avoid.